Sunday, October 10, 2010

That education thing in SL

Sooner or later I was going to need to write about the total goat screw on ice that is the current situation regarding the future of education and non-profit activity in Second Life. Most of you know that I have a great deal of enthusiasm for the various manifestations of learning that take place in SL, but I have never been impressed by the "Education" that goes on in-world. And I am not alone in that holding that point of view. For example, one of my academic friends who has been heavily involved in virtual educational projects--and wound up being extremely frustrated in the process--recently summed up her perspective on things with the statement "education in Second Life has not lived up to its potential."

She puts it so much more politely than I tend to, but I think we have a similar degree of dissatisfaction with the quality and outcomes we're seeing from many education projects in SL.

Nonetheless, I initially was somewhat disappointed when Linden lab made its recent announcement that they would be ending the 50% discount for education and non-profit customers. Even though I hold the personal opinion that the majority of educational projects in SL are mediocrities at best and dismal failures at worst, I still felt that it was important for the Labsters to continue to provide some kind of encouragement to people who are trying to use the platform for something more than pixel pokin'. Why? Well, mostly because I have really enjoyed learning things in Second Life, and I hope that other people will be open to the idea of making that happen. As my frustrated professor friend was pointing out, the educational potential of the platform is in fact immense and still largely unrealized.

Simply put, it didn't make a great deal of sense to me that LL had made this decision. I really hoped there was some kind of rational reasoning behind it...because that's just the kind of spit-dribbling, wild-eyed optimist that I am. So, I very much wanted to talk to someone about what had happened, but unfortunately, the people I used to talk to--such as Tom Hale and Claudia Linden--ain't around no more. By the way, if you will indulge me in going off on a tangent, I would like to state for the record right now that when I think about the fact that hard-working, intelligent people like Claudia have been let go, and a feckless, slack-jawed, incompetent like Wallace Linden is still there, I am utterly fucking gobsmacked. Do they somehow think that this brainless donkey turd of a wally has some special kind of understanding of how to communicate with the social user segment of SL's customer base, or is he simply blowing somebody in HR?

And please don't tell me that I might gain some insight into what is going on by looking at what the former Pathfinder Linden has to say. Totally aside from the fact that I have yet to meet any serious educator who actually derived any real practical benefit from trying to work with Pathfinder (please let me know if you have a verifiable example of something that would help me revise my view of that self absorbed, self-promoting douche), I can only conclude that Pathfinder was a naive simpleton who didn't realize that something like this was going to happen to the customers he brought in, OR he was aware and just conveniently neglected to mention that SL was likely to change it's policies towards educators. Consequently, I don't put much stock in his self-righteous pronouncements at this stage and wish he would just pretty much shut the fuck up.

But I digress.

The fact was, I hoped I could talk to someone and get a reasonable explanation from LL, but that wasn't going to happen. So all I can offer is some speculation based on what I have seen, especially now that Linden lab has kinda sorta backtracked and is going to phase out the discount over a little longer period of time.

Here's my thought: I wonder if the labsters had initially thought of the education/non-profit discount as a temporary incentive--get the teachy, feel-good folks in up front on the cheap so they could learn first-hand what the platform could be used for. It could also have been an opportunity for the creative educators to get something started that they could then show doubtful administrators, and be able to justify continuing their experiments.

Hey, if that was the case, I could really understand the whole thing. It would make sense to me. Plenty of companies give you an introductory rate to get you hooked on using their product: it is a standard rational type of business strategy. It's just that if this was what LL was doing, they didn't do a terribly good job of communicating about it with their customers, or their own staff people in certain areas for that matter. And they're still not communicating very well about it. But hey that's what they do--it's not like we should expect them to suddenly start doing communication right--not when they have a wally like Wally "managing conversations." let's assume that this was the strategy: get the educators in and doing cool stuff, and then eventually phase out the discount that encouraged them to start. Unfortunately, what happened was that the discount seems in many cases to have become something that enabled mediocre and failed projects to live on well beyond the point at which plugs should have been pulled. So maybe that's one of the silver linings in this particular ongoing chimp-and-weasel clusterfuck. People who should have looked at cutting back on their sim expenditures or moving to alternate grids long before this, will now be motivated to think more carefully about where they are going and what the hell they are doing. Plenty of very bright people have already made their moves (Heritage Key being one of the highest quality and possibly most successful examples)...

So boys and girls, now there's no excuse for other groups and institutions to not do the same. And yes, in many cases, when some of these institutions start asking themselves the hard question, the answer is going to be "screw it--the virtual world isn't ready for us and/or we're not ready for it." But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the best thing you learn from an experiment is what doesn't work.

The ironic thing to me, as I reflected on this, was that this whole mess doesn't affect many great places in SL because the non-profit discount didn't apply to some of the best learning/teaching environments I have experienced in SL. Lots of places have done great stuff, but because the people putting the project together didn't happen to be associated with a school or have a 501(c)(3) letter from Uncle Sugar, they had to pay full price all along.

So does that mean that with the change in pricing, it is going to make things more of a level playing field for educational, informational and cultural projects regardless of who is behind the effort? No, it's just going to mean that life is going to be equally unfair. But--and I think this is the good part--it may also mean that schools and non-profits that do still see the potential in experimenting on SL will think really goddamn carefully about what they are doing, who will be doing it, and what outcomes they hope to achieve, before they move ahead or continue with a project.

While that is probably not the pay-off that LL was expecting or looking for with this pricing change, I think you can argue that it'll be a good thing if it does work out this way with fewer--but potentially better--education projects taking place on the platform. Hey, like Papaw used to say, even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.


  1. It is terrible, sure most educational sims aren't very good or interesting to but a few, but still.
    SL is more then just shopping, chatting and naughty behaviour.
    SL could be the most amazing thing for educators, for instance Deadwood, giving people a insight into daily life in the Wild West.
    Educators should spread out more and experiment with other sims but LL should do whatever it can to bring MORE education into SL.
    Perhaps they should change the discount for educators into a more general discount for sims that are extraordinary, sims that show a different side of SL.

  2. We'll never convince most admins who fund our work to continue as long as the "naughty behavior" is a teleport away.

    It's not like the Net, after all, which merely amalgamates servers: BlackBoard provides software for hosting courses. It does not also host X-rated content and RP slavery.

    If it did, we'd drop the vendor.

  3. Hey Jo,

    I understand what you're saying, but at this point I doubt that LL will be willing to try to bring more education activities in--it just doesn't seem to fit with the "fast, easy, fun" mantra. To people like you and me, learning is fun. The Berlin build is a great example of how didactic "interpretive" elements can be mixed with an environment that combines informal learning reinforced through play, and socializing. But that is probably not going to appeal to the mass audience that LL seems to be focusing on now.

    And as far as LL trying to foster good content by offering reduced prices to "quality" builds, not only would it be difficult to come up with a fair and impartial system for judging what is "quality," I think it is increasingly best if LL simply lets the residents come up with projects and try to make them work within the parameters of the marketplace. I suspect that the more LL tries to interject itself into managing or encouraging certain kinds of content, the more they are going to fuck it up.

    For example, the way you have managed Berlin has been very sensible. You haven't tried to do too much, too fast. You started out with a modest build that could support itself, and over time you increased participation and built sufficient additional interest and grass-roots backing from residents, so that you are now able to grow into a larger, more complex build.
    Hey Iggy,

    Yes, I understand where you are coming from with the consideration of the reality of what most administrators would buy into. Certainly I think at this stage it makes a lot of sense for educators who are looking for a 3-D classroom/sandbox situation,where you have a limited population that does not need--or want--visitors from outside that population,to go ahead and try to set up on some kind of open sim or other dedicated server space in which you have absolute control over content as well as who has access. That is,however, a different situation from the non-academic non-profits. The non-profits that are trying to create an interpretive gallery, informational exhibit, or virtual "museum" build arguably can find a certain advantage in working within the context of a "world" like SL where you are going to be able to connect with a diverse, dynamic population. Yes, a great many of them are going to be assholes, but if you are trying to convey a message or information to a general public audience, you have to accept that reality.

    That said, such groups certainly can still create their own worlds to house their virtual exhibits, as Heritage Key has done. If they do so, however, they still face a challenge in making a broadly-based audience aware of that independent world and drawing visitors into it.

    I don't know how Heritage Key is doing in terms of visitation, but based on what I was seeing when I was a regular visitor there earlier this year, I'm guessing that even with their incredibly high-quality content, they may still be finding it to be a challenge to grow visitation. I would be very interested to know how they are addressing that.

    So anyway Iggy, going back to the important issues that you bring up--didn't you have involvement with a virtual higher education classroom space in SL? If I am remembering that correctly, can I ask how you managed the "inappropriate content" conundrum, and kept your administrators happy and comfortable?

  4. They could just get a few of their favourite Lindens and send them undercover to the SL world.
    If I was a Linden I would anounce a few "rewards" based on the subjects LL would like to promote or the PR message they would like to project into the world.
    Then I would choose a few Lindens to find the winners.
    Or let people vote, but only those with premium accounts.
    No matter how much I would like to win such an award, I'm not going to get all my alts a premium account to get it ;)

  5. Dio,

    I hope Heritage Key makes it. They'd not done much marketing. Of course, neither did SL. And thank you for calling me on the nonprofits. They need a broad public we academics do not. I'm not saying that the public-service mission is absent at colleges, but it's limited when we talk about academic content and curriculum. After all, the public we serve are paying customers: students and their families at my traditional residential school.

    As for content, you asked:

    "If I am remembering that correctly, can I ask how you managed the "inappropriate content" conundrum, and kept your administrators happy and comfortable?"

    In four sections I had one parent contact me. For some crazy reason my admins know I'm a professional and do push the envelope, but having won a Distinguished Educator award, I reckon they trust me.

    I told the parent that during the drop/add period all students sign a waiver to acknowledge that they may see adult content or content that is broadly offensive. The waiver also notes that my class has no assignments where such content is required. I reminded this parent--and several students who were concerned--that the Internet is full of offensive content. Unless they chose to study such content, I'd never require it.

    I had the waiver also note their "responsibilities" as students representing our school (basically, don't BE offensive). It has worked well.

    As for the cyber in SL? The typical student I've had thinks it "lame as hell" because, to be honest, they live lives of casual social contacts, partying, and, gasp, sex. Lots of it, if you believe the student editorials in the campus paper.

    These youngsters don't need avatars to live like SL avatars.

  6. About the Pathfinder thing....

    "Pathfinder was a naive simpleton who didn't realize that something like this was going to happen to the customers he brought in, OR he was aware and just conveniently neglected to mention that SL was likely to change it's policies towards educators. "

    I don't know how he could have known what SL was going to do in the future. Look at all the dumb things they have done without anyone knowing or even wanting. And why would they tell someone that doesn't work there of their plans? I don't know what my company is planning even 50% of the time. Does that make someone naive cause they don't rummage through the trash and listen to private conversations to find out all the upcoming plans.

    Sure he did do something to make people in the educational community upset and that was the wiki thing. But lets see...a failing economy, and I have a job and the jobless rate is climbing. Do I do what my boss says, or totally go against his wishes and get fired. I'm sure my kids and family would be happy with that! If Pathfinder was THE BOSS/OWNER, then you can call him on all this stuff...but he was not.

    Give him some slack. This wasn't Pathfinders ultimate evil plan. This is a huge opportunity to become free from LL. (And it's cheaper)

  7. Hey Azzura,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting--and yes, I probably am unnecessarily harsh on Pathfinder--in the big scheme of things he's really even more irrelevant than he was when he worked at LL, and I need to just ignore him.

    At the same time, I wasn't saying that it was Pathfinder's "ultimate evil plan" to set people up for this disappointment--I am guessing it is more likely just a major lack of communication.

    It sounds like the company that you are in may have a communication problem too, if you regard not knowing your company's plans 50% of the time as a normal sort of thing. And yes, certain kinds of companies do need to keep certain things quiet--some operations do have issues of technology or business plans that have to be kept under wraps to avoid giving an edge to the competition or because of the sensitive nature of the product. But in a situation like this, I don't think that's the case. In a customer service-oriented business like SL should be, if you're not upfront and clear with your sales people (and Pathfinder was after all, a glorified salesman)and you're not upfront with your customers, then you're going to end up dealing with some really seriously unhappy customers (ie, what LL has on its hands at the moment)and sales people who feel like they've been made to look stupid. And no, you shouldn't have to rummage through trash and eavesdrop to find out what is going on--that would be a really toxic working environment if you did and I would guess it's a business on the verge of failure if that is what the corporate culture is like.

    By the way, I'm guessing from what you describe about your employment situation that you aren't an educator, but if you are in an education related business that had involvement on SL, did you ever have any kind of useful interaction with him? Just curious.

    And yes, I think it can certainly be looked at as an opportunity rather than a tragedy. That's pretty much the crux of what I'm arguing here.

  8. I don't know that I disagree with anything you said, but here's a slightly different perspective: the nonprofit discount was a way of (a) bringing young people in contact with the platform in hopes of getting them to stay after class, as it were; and (b) making Second Life more respectable, trying to foster the view that a virtual world with universities and such must not be a bad place.

    Looked at that way, the discount was an experiment, and it seems the experiment wasn't working well enough to continue. Communication or lack thereof aside, I don't find it unreasonable for a company to make both the initial decision to offer the discount and the later decision to drop the discount.

    Does it matter? I don't know what fraction of SL's landmass - or, for another metric, what fraction of the densely-used landmass - educational sims consist of. All I can tell is that a great number of people seem mighty upset by the whole thing, but I can't tell whether that's a widespread view or just the view of those whose voices I hear. My sense is the same as yours: the good stuff I've seen hasn't been the result of some educator creating a carefully-planned environment. Rather, interested individuals - some (many?) of whom may be educators in real life - create interesting stuff because it gives them pleasure.

    Let's hope that continues.

  9. I work in the publishing business as the graphic designer/office do-it-all. We sell history, poetry, religion, fiction, etc books from overseas publishers. Now if 5 years ago you called and asked me if we sell or planned to sell erotic fiction, I would have told you NOOO. But tada...a month later we picked up a publisher and sold erotic fiction.

    I never had dealings with Pathfinder in the past when he worked for LL. But I know several that were very upset with him in the past but realized that he wasn't really the one to blame. Shoot the messenger type of thing. Pathfinder believed in what he was selling and that it had a purpose and future...I don't think it was just a 9 to 5 job to him.

    Why not forgive and shake hands! Never know that the future holds and one of you could benefit from the other!

  10. Hey Iggy,
    It sounds like you guys really carefully thought out how you were approaching it. I find your approach interesting as there are a number of academics who actually like the idea that their education projects in SL are not in the proverbial "walled garden" any more than their meatspace institutions are isolated in ye olde ivory tower.

    Your careful and well communicated approach to the reality of the situation certainly would facilitate an institution's ability to function within the complex and diverse world of SL.

    At the same time, of course I understand why you guys would be pulling up tent stakes these days and moving on.

    And I think you can make the argument that change is good for projects such as virtual education--if you keep doing the same thing in the same place, I'm not sure what you're going to be learning after a while. That's probably one of the best advantages to a virtual learning environment--trying something different doesn't mean flushing an expensive bricks and mortar build that cost a blue gabillion samoleans.

    Oh and yes, you have an excellent point about the students themselves. At that age, they're living real life as an experiment, so the options opened up to them in SL would mostly likely pale by comparison to the stupid things they're doing to their actual corporeal selves. So yeah...people are quite possibly not too terribly incorrect when they identify SL as something for "old farts."

  11. hey Rhia,

    Always good to see you join in the disucssion here...

    I think you have a very plausible theory as an alternate to mine (which as I tried to emphasize, is mere speculation, since LL isn't being too terribly forthcoming about what the fuck they actually are on the assumption that thinking has anything to do with it).

    An experiment in trying to draw in younger users would not have been a bad idea--the ironic thing of course is that most people I encountered who had been exposed to SL through an higher ed institutional build were adults--grad students, returning learners, non-traditional students....but hey Rhia, if you are correct that it was an experiment, as I said before, sometimes what you learn from an experiment is not what you expected.

    Anyhow your idea fits with one of my other dumbass theories, which is that SL itself is one big, ongoing experiment, made up of a series of smaller sub-experiments. Yeah, I fear we've been paying to take part in a 7 year-long Beta.

  12. Hey Azurra,

    That's interesting--your story about the surprise acquisition of a line of erotic fiction by your publishing company. But then, based on my limited experience with the publishing business, there is some pretty wacky stuff that goes in in that industry. I don't know if it's as wacky as the virtual world industry, but I know a lot of companies in your line of work seem to be making strange and unpredictable decisions as they try to survive a changing business environment.

    But as far as my grumping at poor old Pathfinder, no it's not shooting the messenger--he was dumped by LL long before things took this strange course. If I was going to shoot a messenger it would probably have to be Jack Linden.

    My issue with Pathfinder is that as far as I can tell he didn't really do shit for education while he was here--the real workhorse was Claudia who didn't get nearly the credit she deserved. Pathfinder seemed--and still seems--more committed to promoting himself than virtual education. What did he do in SL? I am told he maybe brought in some big institutional clients--but that otherwise he couldn't be bothered to respond to communications from front line educators in SL--or some who wanted to be in SL--and in general he behaved in a high-handed and arrogant fashion. Yeah, he's out now, but he was definitely part of the problem. I'm just saying that under the circumstances, I don't really care what he has to say about anything.

    I just really wish we would hear some straight talk from the Lab itself. From my perspective that's what we really need--it would be so reassuring if they would admit that yes, ed discounts were a temporary incentive, but we didn't communicate too well about it, or hey, this thing or that idea was an experiment that didn't work the way we hoped. I think the residents would actually respect that--an admittance that poor choices have been made, and they are trying to sort things out.

    And they need to stop acting like they are afraid of us.

  13. Hey Dio

    Its all a question of timing with the boys. Had the Lab announced in January this year that the discount for educational and non profit groups was going to end in January next year, or even announced it back in June, without a shadow of a doubt there would not have been the shitstorm thats been about since Oct 4th. As you rightly said in your comment, straight talking from the Lab would kill the speculation and uncertainty in one quick move.

    Like that'll ever happen though....

    Still, every cloud has a silver lining. If anything, this has made me look beyond Second Life to elsewhere..towards the Hypergrid. Second Life doesn't have to be the only home for the things I enjoy learning (guess that puts me in the old fart brigade then) then there are a lot of grids out there that will and a lot of new places to learn new things..

    Oh, fore I forget, just one small request. Any chance you can flag up a warning message on your future postings? It's just as I was drinking a cup of coffee I read ' brainless donkey turd of a wally' and as a result I now have coffee stains on the carpet through laughing.....

  14. Hey Alex,

    Thanks for checking in. Sorry about the carpet. But I'm glad that you understand my use of the term "wally." There is another major blogger who took issue with people addressing Wallace as "Wally," apparently working under the misapprehension that it was meant as a friendly familiar-ism, rather than how it actually was intended, as a very uncomplimentary British-ism. But in fact, right from the git-go, Wallace has demonstrated a profound and appalling lack of fetchums and has well earned the appellation of "wally."

    And yes, timing clearly is part of the issue here. It may simply be that from the perspective of the Labsters, they THOUGHT they were giving plenty of warning, well in advance of the impending denouement. People in different industries are used to things happening at different speeds. All the same, you would think that if the boys (and girls, I might add) at the Lab were having effective on-going conversations with their education/non-profit customers, they could have found out what would have been a reasonable time frame for giving notice so people could adapt and prepare.

    And yes, I agree that lots of people are looking at the silver lining here....that they are being encouraged to take a wider view of how they move forward in reinventing themselves and what they do in virtual worlds...and that brings me back to point I want to emphasize: for all their goofiness and multiple oopses, Phillip and the labsters deserve a lot of credit for drawing us into a world of new possibilities, even if they never imagined what those possibilities could actually be. SL has served as a wonderful incubator. It's just that now a lot of us are leaving the nest...

  15. Dio-

    You've got an interesting discussion going here (no surprise about that!), but I thought I'd bring up a few points you and your commenters have missed so far.

    First, the "educational discount" isn't just for colleges, it's really a discount for all non-profits who want to have a presence in SL. That includes libraries (e.g. SCRLC), museums (the Smithsonian), and public/government organizations (e.g., NPR, NOAA and NASA). In RL non-profits, including educational institutions, get property and other tax breaks because they contribute to the public good. I'd like to think that the kinds of activities and idea these organizations contribute to SL make SL a better place for everyone. So it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Linden Labs has decided that they're not going to subsidize the public good any more. A pox on their digital house for that.

    Second, let me confess to being Dio's anonymous educator that thinks that SL hasn't lived up to its educational potential. There are lots of reasons for that. It's hard work to create a really good educational build (as opposed to tossing up a few replicas of the RL campus buildings and holding conventional virtual classes in them). Heck, it's hard for most college faculty to figure out how to move an avatar around the screen much less figure out something creative to do in a virtual world. So college teachers who bring classes into SL are still a lonely few, and much of what those teachers have the students do could be done just as effectively in RL. Moreover some of the so-called educational builds are just plain bad and boring.

    BUT, all that having been said, there are quite a lot of good to excellent educational sims scattered around SL. Some like Iggy O's have had institutional support, but many of them have been developed by individuals or small groups of educators working on a shoestring with little or no institutional resource support and no sources of SL income. Genome Island is one really excellent example. But even other non-profits who've got good educational activities in SL may find it hard to absorb a doubling of their costs. Will NPR continue Science Friday within SL or just decide it can do it best over the RL airwaves? Will the American Astronomical Society continue Astronomy 2009 Island? In some ways, the larger universities are much better able to absorb the price increases than are these other kinds of organizations. I'm very concerned that the change in fee policy is going to price a number of the very best educational sites right out of SL.

    So as Frau Jo suggests, maybe the Lindens should skulk around and find the best educational sims and continue to subsidize them. But guess what? ... they've already identified the ones they think are best. The finalists for the Linden Prize each year are pretty much all educational/non-profit organizations that not only enhance SL for us all but do real good out in RL. So now Linden labs is saying, "We think the work you're doing is really great, but guess what? We're going to spring a big cost increase on you to make it harder for you to be able to continue doing it." Doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

    And then there's the whole fold-the-teen-grid-into-the-main-grid" decision. That gets a lump of coal for smart customer relations if there's nothing left on the main grid except clothing stores and sex beds.

    Oddly enough, I haven't given up hope about education in SL. If LL can make it past this period of bottom-line navel gazing without totally killing education in SL, we educators can learn from past mistakes and from what's going on in other grids. There's still a lot of potential, but - wow - Linden Labs is making it harder and harder to realize that potential.

  16. Sere,

    Thank you very much for that extensive and thoughtful commentary.

    You are absolutely right that there ARE lots of very good educational/informational/interpretive builds on the grid--some of them institutional in origin and and some of them created by interested, intelligent individuals and ad hoc groups.

    That's something I think everyone here agrees on--there is very good work being done, and yes, some of it can move to alternate grids, but that there are certain projects that will work better on the SL grid for a number reasons.

    But I will confess that the idea that LL should be involved in a process of identifying and subsidizing good projects that need help still makes me uncomfortable.

    It seems that if such a plan were to be put into effect, it might be better if an independent review group were formed to which project leaders could apply for support in the form of reduced rates. That independent group could then submit its recommendations to the Lindens.

    Part of the application process, however, should be things like schedules and a work plan, evaluation plan, and expected outcomes. The result of that kind "thinking things through" process, would be better projects overall.

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